Choose My Adventure: The once and future Swordsman

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Choose My Adventure: The once and future Swordsman
For the last three weeks, I've been whipping and kicking every bad guy I can find in Perfect World Entertainment's Swordsman in the hopes of understanding this peculiar wuxia MMORPG. My Choose My Adventure experience thus far has been mixed; I've enjoyed Swordsman's theme and setting, but its mechanics and hard-to-follow narrative have made the experience a touch less manageable. Swordsman from 1-30 seems at best like an extended tutorial and at worst like a game that plays itself.

That's not just my opinion. All of the feedback I can find on the game seems to point in one direction: Swordsman's early levels aren't the main attraction. The real Swordsman exists in PvP (unlocked at level 30), guild quests (unlocked at level 35), and instances (unlocked at 15 -- not bad). Last week's combat discipline discovery at 25 further cemented the idea that Swordsman is a game designed to reward players who stick through the initial grind.

I didn't have much time to play this last week, but I did get a chance to sit down with PWE product manager Gabrielle Heiland to talk about Swordsman's first expansion, the future of the game, and how Perfect World feels about the game's current "wait and see" design.

The sudden expansion

Perfect World is currently hard at work preparing Swordsman's first expansion, Gilded Wasteland. In fact, the expansion is set to go live tomorrow, October 23rd. Gilded Wasteland brings the things you'd expect to see in an expansion, including a level cap boost (to 94), new regions (based on northern China's actual geography), new instances, adjustments to the leveling curve (30-60 has been refined and optimized), new PVP content (instanced battlegrounds), and more. Attentive readers will remember that Swordsman only officially released in late July, meaning the game's first full expansion is being delivered less than three months from its initial launch. What's the big rush?

According to Heiland, PWE hopes Gilded Wasteland will show western players that the team is involved and listening. "We've had some people question why we're releasing an expansion so soon. Most of it is just we really want to show our players that we're really committed to this game and we want to give them the best possible experience." Heiland explained, "There's a lot of cool stuff coming in with this expansion, and we just wanted to get it out to players as fast as we could." It probably doesn't hurt, of course, that the content was finished and released in China back in April. Heiland did hint at some unannounced special features for western players, so we'll need to stay tuned to see what gets unveiled. The expansion centers on what Perfect World considers to be the core of Swordsman: PvP and guild content.

While previewing a slice of Gilded Wasteland, I did get a chance to ask about Swordsman's apparent "race-to-40" mentality. My question was simple: Why does it take so long to get to the good stuff, and how does PWE feel about the current pace of the game? Heiland noted that the team is trying to find the right balance between story, tutorial, and getting players into the action: "We agree on that, actually. We've been working a lot with our devs to up the leveling speed so you can get to that point a lot faster. We have to see and we have to keep balancing around how long it really takes players to get hooked into the game."

Swordsman, I'm told, opens up dramatically at 35 and more so at 40. I'm hoping to catch a glimpse of this content before the month ends.

Viper Fangs and instance queues

One of the most interesting aspects of Swordsman's combat system is that each school has three different disciplines, each with its own set of unique abilities. Because our character is Five Venoms by trade and by poll, she now has access to the Venoms Whip and Viper Fangs disciplines of combat. In learning this side discipline I have seen a hint of Swordsman's depth. The first school centers mostly on buffs, heals, and long cooldowns. The second, however, is much more fun. I can throw a guy with my whip, I can whip every bad guy in a three-mile circular radius, and I can even snag someone with a whip and kick him in the face Liu Kang-style. The two schools I have now can be swapped on the fly similar to Guild Wars 2's specializations; I can buff myself with a Venoms Whip ability, smack someone with a Viper Fang attack, and then switch back for a quick heal. Eventually I'll have a third skillset with which to play.

After my chat with Perfect World, I felt a new inspiration to check out Swordsman's existing instances. Much of the expansion focus is on instance combat, but instances aren't something we've been able to investigate yet on the stream, so this week seemed like the right time to dive in. Unfortunately, the great queue gods frowned down upon me. I waited around 20 minutes for the group finder to put me in a low-level instance (Countryside Ambush; level 15) before I gave up on that and tried an instance at my level (Attack by Night; level 25). After two hours in that queue, I gave up entirely. The problems with the group finder are made more obvious by the fact that you cannot use it if you're not in a safe area, which prevents you from queuing up and running some quests while you wait.

It's possible I did something wrong or caught my server in an off period. I'll try again in our next stream. Heck, I'll even (gasp) build a group the old-fashioned way if the group finder fails to cooperate. In the meantime, though, it's time to start collecting votes for our next Choose My Adventure romp. This time around, let's try it by niche:
Vote by Saturday, October 25th, at 11:59 p.m. EDT if you want in and shout your game choices out in the comments. I can't make any promises, but I always consider reader suggestions! And don't worry if you're loving Swordsman; we've got one more week to see where the game can take us.

Mike Foster is putting you in the driving seat of Choose My Adventure, the Massively column in which you make the rules, call the shots, and take the blame when things go horribly awry. Stop by every Wednesday to help Mike as he explores the ins and outs of games big and small and to see what happens when one man tries to take on a world of online games armed only with a solar keyboard and the power of spellcheck.
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Choose My Adventure: The once and future Swordsman